Saturday, May 15, 2010
Echoes of a Past Life - A Pile of Witchcrap
One of my goals in The Cahokian is to hold up a mirror to the world: to explore what "we" say about ourselves, whoever that "we" might be. "We" have a remarkable ability to delude ourselves, and to create defining myths out of wishful thinking. There are many good things about the United States, for example, but most of us living here would rather not think about all the things documented in my "Anti-Americana" series. Of course these outsider images of America are caricatures themselves, telling a different version of the story but not necessarily a complete one either.
The communities I have participated in all have their own identity myths; myths which are informed by facts but surely by the selective reporting of them. We fool ourselves in taking these myths too literally, I think. The politically active "out" lesbian and gay community loves to harken back to Stonewall, for instance, to the police raid on a corrupt mob-owned gay bar and the ensuing riotous aftermath. There's nothing wrong with seeing Stonewall as a landmark event in the struggle for gay equality and social acceptance, but focusing solely on it discounts a lot of other things that happened inside and outside the gay community in the 1960s and 1970s that led us to where we are today. Wherever that may be.
The Neo-Pagan community was all about self-invention. Neo-Pagans can be brilliant miners and archaeologists of library texts for discovering ancient practices to resurrect in modern times, usually omitting such excesses as human sacrifice. But they can also be poseurs, picking and choosing and blustering, experts at omitting inconvenient facts, and somewhat heartbreakingly gullible to the slightest suggestion of actual ancestral continuity. The foundational myth of Wicca is that Gerald Gardner learned witchcraft from a secret coven of witches in an English forest who had practiced pre-Christian Celtic religion in an unbroken ancestral line since before the middle ages. He validated his tale with some idyllic but questionable anthropology supplied by Dr. Margaret Murray, and voila, Neo-Paganism's instant pedigree.
I wrote the humorous bit of fiction below when I was feeling rather peevish toward Neopagans, perhaps after one too many Pagan festival with overlapping ren-faire/trekkie convention sensibilities, one too many obviously-invented ludicrous traditional claim, one too many bits of play-acting. In truth I think that the time is ripe for a relevant, reverent modern nature religion, and NeoPagans are to be commended for building a real established faith that even has the Pentagon granting pentacle-emblazoned tombstones to fallen Wiccan soldiers. But there are plenty of mysteries of faith upon which to meditate and expand one's consciousness without resorting to making up stories about the magic herbs granny kept in her secret stash, or inventing tales of egalitarian womyn-centered ancient utopias.
Anyway I don't remember what exactly set me off to write this piece, which I didn't finish nor publish (until now!), but I thought it would be funny to tell a de-romanticized shaggy-dog creation myth send-up of Pagan practices. Perhaps, no definitely, it was also obnoxious of me. I was leading up to a punchline I don't entirely remember about the word "witch" deriving from the word "twit." And yet, I think I'm actually making a valid point about how we tell the story of how we got here.
The relationship of our creation myths to the truth is not linear. This dates from about 1994.
The True History of the World: A Pile of Witchcrap
by Ian Scott Horst
(unpublished, unfinished manuscript)
Time: Approx. 30,000 years ago
Place: Somewhere in Europe
It was a cold winter, and the people stayed in the cave for weeks on end to avoid the winds and snows. Since soap had not yet been invented, it was smelly in the cave. Worse, the people were very bored, since yahtzee had not yet been invented either.
Ooga the hunter sat playing with her rocks. She had four of them, and arranged and re-arranged them on top of a bigger rock. There were, of course, lots of rocks in the cave.
Ooga's little son Urggie was playing with mud in the back of the cave. His hands were filthy. Well, actually, he was filthy all over. But as he tried to stand (something he had recently learned to do) he almost fell forward, and he braced himself with a dirty little hand on the cave wall.
"Urggie," said Ooga, looking up from her rocks, "look what you have done! You've gotten little hand prints all over the wall of the cave. Bad little cave-boy! Why don't you come over here and play with these rocks?"
Grogga, who lived with her sisters around the stinking pile of mammoth skins next to Oooga and Urrgie's stinking pile of mammoth skins, sneered at Ooga. "Ooh," she said to her sister Glogga. "I hate that Ooga. She's such a twit, always playing with those rocks. And that brat of hers. Look what he's done to the walls."
"Oh come on, Grogga," replied Glogga. "It's not like there's anything else to do around here. Besides, she says it's kind of like magic how playing with those rocks helps pass the time."
"I still say she's a twit."
Eventually, Ooga died of old age when she was 32. Her children continued to play with rocks, and taught their children how to play with rocks. Their neighbors always called them twits, too.
Grogga and Glogga died a year later when they were eaten by a saber tooth tiger. The tiger thought they were yummy, though the lice in their hair gave him indigestion.
Time: Approx. 10,000 years ago
Place: Somewhere in Europe
Kraka was really upset. "I am so sick of elk burgers. Elk steaks. Elk chops. Elk soup. Is that the only thing around here to eat?" She sat playing with three rocks and an elk bone which had been handed down through her family for generations. "At least I'm not bored, too." Actually four rocks had been handed down to her for generations; she'd lost one of the rocks a few summers ago after drinking too much fermented elk-milk.
There was sudden commotion outside her elk-hide hovel. Kraka heard shouts from the men and women assigned to guard their encampment. She stood, and stepped out of the hovel to see what the commotion was about.
"Let's ask the Twit, she'll know what to do!" said a man dressed in filthy elk skins. A loud murmur of agreement passed through the assembled crowd. The crowd moved toward Kraka's hovel.
"Oh great Twit, we have captured a stranger. What should we do?" From the center of the crowd, a burly man in a dirty elk-leather kilt shoved a small figure before him to the ground at Kraka's feet.
The man was slightly built, and his skin was darker than that of her people. "Hmmm. Too bad. I was hoping you might have found something good to eat," said Kraka. "OK, who are you and why shouldn't we kill you?"
The small man stood, and spoke in a thick Indo-European accent. "I am called Agri in my land, which is far, far from here. I come from the soon-to-be-fabled Fertile Crescent. Madam, if you would please introduce me to your chief I would have a few words with him."
Kraka looked doubtful. She sized up his scrawny thighs and thought that maybe he would be a nice change from elk meat. "Not a good enough answer. You there, Zug, get a spit and light a big fire. Our guest is staying for dinner!"
"But wait! I can show you many miracles!" chirped the small man.
"Look, I'm the Twit of this tribe, and miracles are my department. But OK, I will consult the sacred oracle." Kraka went back into her hovel and picked up her four rocks. Well, her three rocks and one elk bone. She shook them around and threw them in the dirt. Well, OK, there was a lot of dirt in the hovel: She threw them in the part of the dirt that she had specially tamped down for the purposes of magic oracles.
She gazed at the pattern of objects. "Hmm. The three of rocks and the one of bone. That's the same answer I got last time. This... this... is a synchronicity!" Kraka went back outside. "The oracle has spoken. It says to explain your miracle. And it it really is a miracle, we may let you live."
Agri reached into a small purse hanging from his waist and held out a handful of seeds. "This is the miracle."
"It looks like a handful of wild elk-feed to me," said Kraka, eyeing the seeds dubiously.
"Yes, it does. But if you place these seeds in the ground and water them well they will grow plants that bear a hundred more seeds. And when they grow you can grind them, mix them with water, and cook them and eat them."
The gathered members of the tribe began laughing wildly. "Elk-feed! He wants us to eat elk-feed! Hah hah hah..."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," said Kraka. "Who would want to eat elk-feed but an elk? Go on, Zug, get the spit."
"I beg of you, give me a chance!" cried Agri.
Now Kraka, being a Twit and all, thought maybe she shouldn't be so rash. "OK. Plant your elk-feed. If what you say is true we will spare your life."
Agri carefully dug rows in the dirt and planted his precious seeds. The guffaws of the crowd were deafening.
A week later Kraka had grown impatient. She had been right; the thigh meat was lovely juicy change from elk.
But not long after that little shoots appeared in the dirt that had been furrowed by the late foreigner. And not long after that, the shoots grew into a field of lovely tall plants. And soon, as the foreigner had promised, thousands and thousands of little seeds sprouted from the tops of these plants.
Kraka was still skeptical, but recalled the words of the foreigner anyway. "What was that he said? Grind them and mix them with water?" She did as she remembered and soon had a messy yellow paste. She wrapped the paste in leaves and placed the bundles carefully around the edge of her fire. Soon a delicious aroma came from the bundles. She unwrapped one and nibbled at it. She couldn't believe it, but she had never tasted anything so delicious. It was crunchy and crispy (because yeast would not be invited until her great-great-great-granddaughter's time) and sodium free. She realized that her world would never be the same. Her head whirled with the thoughts of the potential of this new food. She realized this new thing would change her people's culture forever.
Kraka called together her people. "My people," she proclaimed, waving a piece of her hot-baked goody, "I have made a miracle. I name this new food after me. We are nomads no mo. We shall build permanent huts instead of hovels. We shall cultivate the fields. Let the arts and sciences flourish, whatever they are. And let our new ways, our new culture, be named for the mysterious stranger who brought the first of these seeds to our land. I proclaim the birth of Agri-culture!"
Months passed and the people flourished. Many of them, including Kraka herself, got very fat on the new food. No longer was it just elk burgers, but now elk burgers on whole wheat or white crackers, chicken-fried cracker-crumb-breaded-elk in white gravy, and elk popovers. Rigda, one of the tribal artisans, and the world's first chubby chaser, fell immediately in love with Kraka.
"Oh Kraka, I worship you. Let me carve a statue of you," he pleaded with her, basking in the glorious afterglow of one of their 30-second joinings.
At first Kraka was unsure of Rigda's intentions. But after seeing how lovingly he carved stones and bones into a curvaceous interpretation of her ample pulchritude, Kraka was overjoyed. Soon her new field-side hut was filled with little statuettes carved in her image.
Time: Approx. 9,950 years ago
Place: The same place in Europe
Azarak was Kraka's grandson. He was not the Twit of the tribe, though many thought he was a twit indeed. His older sister had inherited the spiritual reins of the community. In truth, Azarak was a bit of a laughing stock.
Once he, his sister Grelda and their friends were exploring a cave not far from their village. The cave was dark and deep, and their torches illuminated many strange and eerie paintings on the walls.
Poor Azarak suddenly had an attack of flatulence, the embarrassing noise reverberating in the darkness for several minutes. His sister and her friends made him feel like a fool, running around him in circles in sing-song childish voices teasing about the echo his farting had caused. [Wow, that is one seriously mean in-joke! "Ekko ekko Azarak!" is an allegedly traditional Wiccan chant. --ish]
He grew up unhappy and miserable, and vowed his revenge. The moment came when a travelling trinket salesman passed through the village on his way to the coast. Well, actually, he was not, strictly speaking, a salesman, since selling had not been invented yet. He was really a travelling barterman.
Azarak was sitting in the dirt outside the family hut scratching his fleas when the barterman walked up.
"Say, lad, I'm trying to invent commerce only I can hardly find anything in these parts worth bartering for. Everyone already has plenty of elk hides. Do you have anything I might be interested in? I'll make it worth your while."
Azarek remembered his sister's cherished collection of figurines handed down to her from her grandmother. "Well, I might. Come on in."
He lead the barterman over to a particularly squalid corner of the hut, and pulled aside a tattered, mouldering elk-hide. "My sister says that her grandfather made all these statues of my grandmother. He said he worshipped her."
The barterman remembered how on his travels far and wide people were always asking for figures. "I'll take them. What do you want in return?"
"What do you have," asked Azarak.
The barterman opened his elk-hide sack. "I have sticks. I have stones. I have elk bones. I have..."
Azarak's eye caught something in the sack. "What's that?"
"That? Oh that's very special. It's a new invention. It's called a bowl. It's been carved from a piece of wood far, far away from here. You use it to eat with."
"To eat with! What's wrong with using your hands?"
"No, no. You put food in it. They you stick your hands in the food."
"Oh, neat. I want that."
"Well, it's quite rare. You'll have to offer me something else as well."
Azarak thought a moment. "My sister has magic rocks. You can have of them." He looked around the hut and saw a particularly worn elk-skin bundle. He unwrapped it, and pulled out one of the three rocks inside.
"You say these are magic rocks"" asked the barterman. "What do you mean, magic?"
"My sister is the Great Twit of this village. She uses these rocks to consult the oracle."
"Well in that case, it's a deal. Here you go sonny."
And the barterman handed Azarak the rough wooden vessel, grabbed the proffered rock, and began to load the figurines into his sack. Azarak rubbed his hands together in glee, knowing how mad his sister would be upon discovering that one of her magic rocks and all of her family heirlooms were gone.
"Thank you, lad. Well now, I'll be on my way. I'll be back this way again in the spring. You see if there's anything else you want to trade. Remember me, the name's Hum-El. Bye, kid." And with that the barterman walked out of the hut and down the worn and rutted path out of the vilage.
Azarak's glee soon began to turn to worry. "What if my sister is angry with me? What have I done! She's the Twit!" He looked at his new prize with a sick feeling in his stomach. He farted.
"I better put this thing in place of the magic rock. Maybe she won't notice the difference,"he thought, as he stuffed the wooden bowl into the bundle containing the two remaining rocks and the elk bone.
And lo and behold, soon thereafter his sister was called upon to throw the sacred oracle. She cast the contents of the bundle into the dust and looked at the results with shock and disbelief. "I don't believe it! The two of rocks. The one of elk-bone, and one of, what is this thing? Some kind of cup or bowl? That's the first time this reading has ever happened. This is a powerful omen!"
And much to Azarak's dismay, his sister's standing with the tribe increased. His disappointment was short-lived, though, as he died soon after from eating some rotten elk-meat that had, it should be noted, turned completely green after sitting in the wooden bowl for two entire weeks. His sister always remembered the time she had teased him, and vowed to be kinder to her other brothers ever after.
Time: 3,000 years ago
Place: Still someplace in Europe
Gwindel thought of herself as a sharp dresser. And it was only right for the Twit of the tribe to care about her appearance. Gwindel would sit by the pond outside the village gaze at her reflection. She stuck leaves and flowers in her greasy, stringly hair and marvelled at the effect. The she would wrap a piece of elk skin around her head. This she loved even more. Once, she held an elk-skull to the top of her head. This was her favorite. She strapped the antler-bearing bones to the top of her head with strips of elk-leather and pranced about the paths of the village, singing rhymes her foremothers had passed down to her.
Gwindel loved to put things on her head.
[And sadly, dear reader, that is where the manuscript ends, except for a couple notes for future chapters, including one line of dialogue: "Ann, you have harmed none. Do what would wilt it." --ish]